Key points

  • Exercise can reduce your risk of developing health issues related to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like bone weakness.
  • Psychological health can be improved by staying active which may lead to lower inflammation.
  • IBD symptoms like pain and fatigue can make physical activity hard; starting small and building your endurance slowly can help.

Should people with Crohn’s or colitis exercise? 

Staying physically active is really important for people with Crohn’s and colitis because the disease can affect your bones, nutrition, psychological health and energy levels. Each of these can be improved with the help of exercise that suits your lifestyle.  

Bone Health 

Steroid medication to treat inflammation and low absorption of important nutrients for bone health (calcium and vitamin D) can lead to weak bones and osteoporosis. 

Talking with your doctor about ways to protect your bone health is a good place to start because exercise is only one way to help your bones. 

Regular weight-bearing exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, dancing, aerobics, or active team sports is good for your bones. Outdoor exercise is especially valuable as this will increase your exposure to sunlight and boost your vitamin D production.  

Learn more about Complications of IBD

Psychological Health 

Research has discovered a connection between the gut and the brain. It then comes as no surprise that stress can affect the gut and that the gut can have an impact on psychological health. 

Exercise can reduce stress by releasing endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that give you a sense of happiness and act as natural painkillers. Gentle exercise activities, such as practicing yoga, can help improve the mind-body connection and lower stress and may lead to decreased inflammation. 

Learn more about Psychological Health and IBD

What should I do if my symptoms are getting in the way of exercise? 

Painful joints, flares, fatigue and unpredictable urgency for the loo can make it really hard to form an exercise routine. Even with all the complications that come with having this chronic disease, moderate exercise has proven to help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. 

Learn more about Fatigue and IBD

Whether you’re starting regular exercise for the first time or trying to return to your routine, start small and take it at your own pace. Planning ahead can go a long way in preventing embarrassing accidents and help with any anxiety you may be feeling. 

Remember to always be kind to yourself when you’re feeling unwell and remember resting is as important to your wellbeing as exercise.  

Tips and tricks for staying active 

  • Join an exercise group in a location with toilets. This could be at your local gym, swimming pool or parks. Young people with IBD can also benefit physically, emotionally and socially from taking part in sport activities if they feel up to it. 
  • Plan a route in advance where you know there will be toilets so you can walk the dog or cycle carefree. 
  • If in flare-up, focus on strength maintenance and low-impact activities such as walking. Work on one muscle group at a time, rest when you need to, and stop when your body tells you. 
  • Make physical activity a habit and set yourself some goals: 
    • Walk, not drive, to the neighbourhood shops. 
    • Do the housework or gardening. Vacuuming and scrubbing floors are especially good exercise!
    • Play with your family in a nearby park or your backyard. 
    • Park the car some distance from your destination and then walk to and from it. 
    • Take the stairs instead of escalators or lifts. 
    • Walk when you catch up with friends and family or while you are talking on the phone. 
  • Try gentle exercise when your joints are hurting. You can try different types of exercise and the time of day that you do them such as in the morning after getting up, when stiffness tends to be worst. This can be quite a trial and error process but finding the right thing for you is worth it. 
  • Meet with a professional to discuss your personal fitness needs and figure out a plan for the good days and the bad. This will help you gradually build your strength and fitness, without aggravating symptoms or adding too much stress to your body. 
  • Learn ‘good stress’ and ‘bad stress’ – Sweating is not bad! Learn to recognise the signs of your body responding to exercise versus your body rejecting an activity. If you can recognise the difference, you will know when to keep going and when to let your body rest. 
  • Take full advantage of symptom-free periods, and use this time to increase your fitness. Take on a new challenge, increase your weight training, or step up your fitness goals. Improvements made during this time will serve you well during flares or times of high stress. Always listen to your body and be careful not to push yourself too hard which may lead to flare-ups.

Any big changes to your lifestyle should be talked about with your doctor or IBD nurse, particularly if you are experiencing complications or symptoms, or need to recover from surgery. It may also be helpful to work with a fitness instructor or develop an exercise plan personalised for you.